Myanmar – The first golden pagoda
So today is our final day on Earth. An apocalypse is impending. Though some people have overlooked the fact that the Mayans ran out of wall space, or that they decided that it was time to stop and have dinner before never returning, others believe that this date is our Armageddon. Run to your shelters – it is another special episode of The End of the World!
As you can tell, I’m not a staunch believer in Mayan traditions or predictions. I also believe that, if they were able to predict the end of the world, they would have been able to predict their demise to the Spanish, and done something about it. Nonetheless, we did actually spend December 21st, 2012, praying. If you were at one of Buddhism’s holiest places, you probably would have been as well.
Not that I was thinking about our impending demise. Far from it, I was thinking about my own future. There can be fewer better places to connect with your inner voice than at the Shwedagon Pagoda, the jewel in Yangon’s crown.
Obama came to visit this religious complex north of downtown Yangon when he was here recently, so I figured I should probably do so as well. We thus rose fairly early on Friday morning to beat the crowds and the heat to see temples that shimmer blindingly in the hearts and minds of the people of Myanmar.
This place is a big deal. All Myanmar Buddhists hope to visit Shwedagon at least once in their lifetime, which catapults it into a Mecca-esque stratosphere. Its golden stupa in the centre towers above the numerous smaller shrines located within its confines. This is partly due to the fact that the main temples and stupa are elevated, thus making you look up as you yearn for the number of steps to shrink as you are climbing towards the top.
There are four passageways to the top. The two that I saw are guarded at the bottom by lions, whom Buddhists see as the best protectors of the land. Each is covered by tin roofs with locals young and old selling souvenirs and important items for pilgrims. Some of them are shown below, as one of our group bought them for all of us to use. They also have fascinating 3D paintings lining the edges of the respective ceilings, which tell the stories of Buddha’s life.
I put mine in a vase for one of the main temples surrounding the large golden stupa. Interesting story behind the glittering centrepiece at the top of it – when erecting their equivalent of the angel on the top of the tree, the workers were not allowed to touch the pagoda at all, so had to build a mass of wooden and bamboo around the sides of it and then hover over the top delicately until they could get it into place.
The shrines house the icons of Buddha and many other Gods. There are eight in total, one for each day of the week. That is not a typo – apparently Wednesday morning and Wednesday afternoon are now two different days. You are supposed to pray at the shrine for the day you were born. I was born on a Wednesday early in the morning, but could not understand which one to go to, so just went to one of the larger shrines and made my wish, as is custom. No, I’m not telling you what I wished for. No, it wasn’t that the world wouldn’t end, though that was of course a nice aspect to the day.
The complex is great for people- watching. From the youngest of our children to the eldest of our time, thousands of people come to the Shwedagon Pagoda every day to pray and find their inner peace. It was a quiet and respectful atmosphere when we were there – when I return to Yangon, I will go at night and hopefully witness the colour and vibrancy this holy site is renowned for.
It is a wonderful and personable complex. A truly magnificent sight, and one that unfortunately most of us have not heard of. We know of the Vatican. We know of Mecca and Medinah. The Shwedagon Pagoda deserves to be put into the same bracket, and visited enough to bring in money that will, hopefully, ensure it is properly maintained and adored the world over. Maybe, when Myanmar opens up to tourism, the expression will not be that Buddhists should visit once in their lifetime. Perhaps it will apply to all of us.
Love you all